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Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Four Frames

10th death anniversary anthology

by Sachi Sri Kantha, October 16, 2010

By July 1960, the Sinhalese people had begun to realize that the Sinhalese politicians had been making use of the language and other communal problems to bid for power. Moreover their minds were still fresh with the bitter memories of the riots of 1956 and 1958, which they attributed to the communal policies of the Government. No longer they wished to be troubled by communal problems. Naturally the 1960 July elections concluded with a colossal defeat for the United National Party and its communal policy and a landslide victory for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the liberal policy it professed at that time. All the country had entertained the hope that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party was the only party that was capable of healing the wounds of the past and paving the way for real unity between the Sinhalese and Tamils.

Sirimavo BandaranaikeThe tenth death anniversary of Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1916-2000) passed by recently.

Her claim to fame was that of the first elected woman head of state in the world. In an obituary note that I penned ten years ago, I remember writing that ‘she was indeed the first, but she was not the best’. Regular readers of Sangam website would have noted that recently I had covered Sirimavo’s travails with the CIA, during her first tenure in office (1960-65), and about a newsreport that her party received funding from KGB (the then Soviet Union’s intelligence agency) for the 1989 general elections. Her flawed political career still awaits in-depth studies. We shouldn’t forget that it was during her second tenure in office (1970-77) the seeds for Sinhala-Tamil confrontation was sown and LTTE was born.

One distinguishing feature that Sirimavo introduced into the island’s polity was to promote Tamil sycophancy and to show the world, that ‘We have no problem with the Tamils. One of my cabinet ministers is a Tamil, my lawyer is a Tamil’ political spin. And there indeed were Eelam Tamils who enjoyed sycophancy for reasons of ego boost, power and pork barrel politics. Alfred Duraiappah, E.R.S.R. Coomaraswamy, Kumarasamy Vinothan, Chelliah Kumarasooriyar, K.T. Rajasingham, and later (under her daughter President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s tenure, 1994-2005) Lakshman Kadirgamar and Douglas Devananda inducted themselves into the sycophants circle.

Rather than providing a soppy, sentimental feature about Sirimavo, I have cumulated below four items in chronological order, which offer some perspectives about her political career.

(1) Excerpts from a book of Tamil historian, advocate S. Ponniah (1963)

(2) Excerpts from a memoir of her kin, Yasmine Gooneratne (1986)

(3) Sirimavo’s interview to Anderson siblings (1987).

(4) Excerpts from a memoir from one her public service officials, Bradman Weerakoon (2004)

Sirimavo Bandaranaike on her wedding day in 1940 from 1986 memoir of Yasmine Gooneratne
Sirimavo Bandarnaike on her wedding day in 1940 from 1986 memoir of Yasmine Gooneratne.

Events of 1960, as recorded by S. Ponniah

[source: Satyagraha and The Freedom Movement of the Tamils in Ceylon, 1963]

“By July 1960, the Sinhalese people had begun to realize that the Sinhalese politicians had been making use of the language and other communal problems to bid for power. Moreover their minds were still fresh with the bitter memories of the riots of 1956 and 1958, which they attributed to the communal policies of the Government. No longer they wished to be troubled by communal problems. Naturally the 1960 July elections concluded with a colossal defeat for the United National Party and its communal policy and a landslide victory for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the liberal policy it professed at that time. All the country had entertained the hope that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party was the only party that was capable of healing the wounds of the past and paving the way for real unity between the Sinhalese and Tamils. This, in view, they had clearly decided not to be a communal mandate to an extremely communal party to deny the basic rights of the Tamil-speaking people.

On account of the absolute majority it got, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party decided to form its government without seeking the aid of the Federal Party. The absolute power they got on account of their absolute majority began to alter the liberal policy of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party to one of cold-shouldering the Federal Party alliance. Mr. Chelvanayakam and the Federal Party waited for nearly six months from the time the Sri Lanka Freedom Party came into power expecting the ruling party to make a real attempt to solve the language problem. It become clear during this period that the Government was not keen on meeting the Tamil demands. About the middle part of November 1960, however, representatives of the Federal Party headed by Mr. Chelvanayakam met the Prime Minister and some other members of the Cabinet at Temple Trees to discuss the Tamil rights. Far from the discussion being satisfactory, the Federal Party became disillusioned of the fact that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party Cabinet had set its face against a just settlement of the basic demands of the Tamil-speaking people. As time went by, some of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party ministers even became intolerant of Tamil demands. The Finance Minister, Mr. Felix Dias Bandaranaike, for example, ata function in Ratnapura stated on 5th February 1961, that enough time had been spent on the language problem and that there were other problems like the economic problem to be considered.” (pp. 51-52).

One policy for the Family, another for the Nation

[source: Yasmine Gooneratne, Relative Merits: A Personal Memoir of the Bandaranaike Family of Sri Lanka, 1986]

[Note by Sachi: Author Yasmine Gooneratne, was a niece of Sirimavo’s husband Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, the fourth primeminister of Ceylon. When she wrote this memoir, she was serving as an associate professor of English at Macquarie University, Australia. Dots note a paragraph omitted by me. Though the author mentions that Solomon married Sirimavo in 1937, it was an inadvertent error. The marriage took place in 1940.]

“Uncle Solomon’s intention to educate his own children abroad was, in fact, carried out after his death in 1959 by his widow Sirimavo. The decisions she made to send their elder daughter Sunethra to Oxford, the younger Chandrika to the Sorbonne, and their son Anura to the University of London were in keeping with long-established family tradition and her husband’s wishes. But they were strengthened too by my aunt’s anxiety, following Uncle Solomon’s assassination (which she had witnessed and tried to prevent, flinging herself with characteristic courage between her husband and his murderer), for the children’s personal safety within the island. It does seem rather unlucky, therefore, that these very decisions, justifiable on human and on personal grounds, contradicted the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s official policy on national education at that time, which barred Ceylonese students from seeking higher education abroad if the courses they wished to take were already available in the island.

Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike had by then succeeded to her husband’s position as leader of the SLFP. She had achieved distinction on her own account by becoming the world’s first woman Prime Minister. But rather more important than the accident by which she preceded Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Mrs Golda Meir and Mrs Margaret Thatcher to a winning-post set up by keepers of world records is the fact, undisputed I should imagine by those who follow Sri Lankan politics, that she is the most formidable and charismatic leader the country has ever seen. Sirimavo found herself in the unenviable position of having to enforce national educational policies from the disadvantages of which her own three children were exempt. A woman of unusually strong will, and possessed of a sturdy resolution that her later career has given her frequent opportunity to display, she did not allow public criticism to deter her from doing what she doubtless saw as her duty both to her children and to her husband’s memory…

Most conservative members of our clan, including Daddy, reacted with deep misgivings when, on the death of her husband. Sirimavo was persuaded by senior members of his party to enter politics. Even Uncle Paul Deraniyagala, who had been Solomon’s best man when he married Sirimavo in 1937, shook his head gravely over the idea of his cousin’s widow in national politics, and tch-tched his disapproval.

‘She can’t achieve anything by it’, said Uncle Paulie. ‘What does she know of politics? In Solla’s time Sirima presided over nothing fiercer than the kitchen fire. And think what Ceylon’s like – would people ever tolerate a woman at the top? She’ll end by spoiling her personal reputation and ruining the family name.’ ” [pp. 159-160]

Mrs. B. speaks to Jon Lee Anderson and Scott Anderson

[source: Jon Lee Anderson and Scott Anderson: War Zones – Voices from the World’s Killing Grounds, 1988]

[Note by Sachi: The front matter in italics (as in original) provides the context, when Anderson siblings interviewed Mrs. Bandaranaike. Then, the main text of the answers provided by the interviewee is interrupted by questions by reporters’ initials (SA and JLA). The dots and words within parenthesis, are as in the original.]

Her coquettish smile contrasts with the harsh words, delivered in a deep, wheezy voice, of Madame Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The world’s first elected woman head of state, she was elected prime minister in 1960 after her husband, prime minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, was assassinated by a Buddhish monk.

In her two terms in office, Madame Bandaranaike changed the nation’s name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, led it into economic chaos, and, according to many, aggravated tensions between Sinhalese and Tamils. Often compared to Indira Gandhi, another iron-willed contemporary who brooked little dissent, Bandaranaike strengthened her hand by repeatedly invoking emergency powers. A leftist rebellion in 1971 was crushed by her troops, resulting in the deaths of thousands. In 1977, her Freedom Party was resoundingly defeated in elections. Today, undeterred by a decade of enforced retirement, Bandaranaike is planning to run for president in 1989.

The interview is held in her enormous, colonial-style house on a leafy street of Colombo’s exclusive Cinnamon Gardens neighborhood. In the octagonal sitting room is a large bust of her late husband, along with signed photographs of world leaders, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon among them. In the passage-way outside, a burly bodyguard stands watch.

Now, I’m not boasting, but I was prime minister for twelve years in this country, and not one day was there a racial riot in my time. I didn’t have it. They tried in the north; I stopped it. I managed to clinch it there. Problems spread to other areas, and I suppose I had to take the leaders into custody. I didn’t hesitate to do that. All of them! The leaders were taken, and all this nonsense stopped! They were kept quite and safe in Colombo, given all the facilities, whatever they wanted, but they were kept quiet until the whole thing settled down, and then they were allowed to go.

This man [Prime Minister], Jayewardene, cannot act. He could have taken steps, he could have done these things. That’s the complaint of everybody, even his own supporters today. I don’t know why, whether he was betrayed, or…what he’s thinking on – it’s very difficult – but anyway, the fact remains that certain things could have been controlled at the beginning. It could have been nipped in the bud; he did nothing. I’m not criticizing him because he’s my opponent, but it’s a fact; you ask anybody, they will say that.

If I was PM, the situation would not be there. (laughs) Talk to anybody they’ll say that. I wouldn’t allow it to come to this. During my time, they may have discussed these things privately, but my government wouldn’t allow it to spread.

SA: Specifically, what would you do to stop the conflict if you were to assume office today?

Bandaranaike: It’s going to be violent. The situation is so bad, it’s gotten so protracted, it’s not going to be very easy. Certainly not. I won’t say it’s an easy task.

It could have been stopped, but it wasn’t. You see, in a situation like this, you must not tell the people everything. There are certain things you have to keep quiet. When I was PM, I remember one incident just before the ’76 elections [sic; should be 1977 elections] It was a very unfortunate incident. Mr. Sivanayagam [sic; should be Chelvanayakam], the Tamil leader, died, and they brought his ashes from Jaffna to Trinco[malee]. They brought it there, and some of the Tamils viewed the body and went to a Sinhalese village and tried to create some trouble. There was a clash, and some Sinhalese and Tamils died there.

I received the news, and I wanted to somehow control the riots, so I sent the army commander to Trincomalee and ordered, ‘Somehow, contain this; don’t let it spread.’ And I called all the newspapers and said, ‘You are not to put this in the papers. I’ll bring censorship rules. You’re not to publish this in the papers, because the rest of the country must not know what has happened there.’ And we controlled it! And the problem did not recur! So that is how one has to act! There are times when you can’t tell the country everything, in the interests of peace…But this government didn’t know that, I’m sorry to say. They didn’t because, I suppose, for some reason they didn’t want to.

Now, in the ’83 riots, it was not the Sinhalese people who really rioted; it was a group of people – Sinhala or not – but all supporters of the government. It’s known! Ask any Tamil and they’ll tell you that. They got workers from the trade unions, and they’re the ones who did it. They went around in government vehicles, marking Tamil houses to be set fire. It was not done by the Sinhalese; they were Sinhalese, but it was not the Sinhalese feeling. It was just orders, and the president kept quiet.

But still, no decent Sinhalese joined in that, and a lot of Tamils were coming to my house – I had ten Tamils living here for three or four days; I gave them protection because they were afraid that their houses would be attacked. So a lot of Sinhalese, decent Sinhalese, protected Tamils. Decent Sinhalese. It was just a set of…thugs who did that. Really, the mischief-makers were these thugs behind the government. I’m sorry to say. That’s well known; talk to any of the Tamils.

JLA: So you don’t think the riots were symptomatic of any deeper division between the two ethnic groups?

Bandaranaike: Now there is strong feeling between the two. Of course, the tension between the Sinhalese and the Tamils has been in conflict for generations, but we lived as one nation. Unfortunately, this last riot made the Tamils very angry, because it was the innocent Tamils that suffered. They were living happily here, doing business, making all their money – because all the lawyers here, all the doctors, the top ones are Tamils. And my lawyer is a Tamil. (laughs) He was a good lawyer, a clever lawyer, so we went to him; we didn’t say he was a Tamil so, therefore, why should we support him? Now, Tamil always goes to Tamil, but we don’t do that; Sinhalese are not so communal-minded…So they lived quite happily here.

SA: How do you think history will judge your term as PM?

Bandaranaike: I ruled for twelve years, and there was never a day of racial riots in my time. There was a riot in ’57 [sic: in 1958], during my husband’s time. Very unfortunate. That, again, was a set of people, not the normal Sinhalese people. After that, since ’57, there were no racial riots in this country, not during my two periods.

During our time, people could go to Jaffna. We were able to move freely, right from the north to the east, without any problem. There was no problem; Sinhalas and Tamils, they had grievances, bitternesses, but they lived happily. They lived together. Not like now.” (pp. 194-196)

Events of 1961 and 1972, as viewed by a Sinhalese Official

[source: Bradman Weerakoon: Rendering Unto Caesar, 2004]

(Note by Sachi: The BC Pact referred to by the author, stands for Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact made by FP leader Chelvanayakam in late 1950s, with Sirimavo’s husband Solomon Bandaranaike. The author also misidentifies the year of FP’s satyagraha campaign as 1962. It happened in 1961. The army’s coup d’etat occurred in January 1962)

During Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s First tenure of office

“The Federal Party, which had voted to defeat Dudley’s minority UNP government at the vote on the ‘Throne speech’ in March 1960 gave its support to Sirimavo Bandaranaike and the SLFP in the July elections. In return the Federal Party expected some movement on the proposals made in the BC Pact which had been further elaborated in its statement of minimum demands which had been put both to the UNP and the SLFP. These referred to the four basic objectives of regional autonomy for the Northern and Eastern Provinces, suspension of state-aided colonization, Tamil language rights especially regarding entry of Tamil speaking persons to government service and amendments to the Citizenship Act of 1948 which had deprived thousands of up-country Tamils of their right to vote.

However, Sirimavo’s immediate priority concerns were elsewhere and had more to do with reviving the economy which was in decline. But her economic policies of increasing state control over the commanding heights of the economy while providing relief to the majority was of little help to the Tamils as the industrial enterprises were located mainly in the South and the preference for Sinhala language proficiency in the public sector did not enable the Tamils to reap any benefit from this policy.

The other strand of her policy of exercising more state control over education through the virtual take-over of the assisted schools also indirectly created resentment among the Tamil middle classes and the Tamil Christians. Education in the Jaffna peninsula – the heartland of the Tamils – was largely in the hands of missionary schools. Sirimavo although educated throughout her school year in mission schools – Ferguson College in Ratnapura in the primary classes and then St. Bridget’s College, Colombo, a leading Roman Catholic institution, was to pursue a determined policy of bringing the assisted schools under state control and eliminating the difference which existed between the privileged and the well-endowed mission schools and the state-run schools. Some of the leading schools which had opted to remain outside the state system and be fee levying private institutions, continued but with the changes introduced by Sirimavo a large number of important schools, including her own St.Bridget’s lost the grant-in-aid from the state which had enabled them to run without charging fees. These in future were to be under the direct control of the state as regards recruitment of staff and the content of the education they imparted.

Her education policy, which was seen as part of the socialist orientation of the government was much resented by powerful elites, especially in the city of Colombo and among the higher bureaucracy, which had largely been recruited from the leading public schools. It was to trigger one of the principal challenges Sirimavo had to face, the attempted coup d’etat in January 1962.

The state take-over of assisted schools meant that state patronage and financial assistance, extended from colonial times to schools run by religious denominations, would cease. This followed earlier moves to curtail the visas of the nursing nuns of the Catholic orders who had for many years been the mainstay of the country’s health institutions, particularly in the cities. The prime minister’s permanent secretary in the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs (NQ) Neil Quintus Dias was well-known for his strong stand against ‘Catholic Action’ as it was then called. His actions in regard to the defence establishment and police were also being watched by the upper echelons of the three Forces which were then largely manned by non-Buddhist officers who had had their secondary education mainly in the denominational schools.

As these actions of the government continued, and there rose a need to lobby against the schools’ take-over, an important religious dignitary, Cardinal Gracias, came over from Bombay, in a hurried visit to talk to the prime minister. Although he was courteously received and given high hospitality, Sirimavo did not retract from the stand she had taken. The Cardinal returned to Bombay with the mission unaccomplished.

The seeming lack of interest by the administration to the problems of the Tamils, as articulated by the FP and put forward in the Minimum Demands, led to the FP calling for a non-violent hartal at its party convention in Jaffna in January 1962 [sic]. On 20 February 1962 [sic], Chelvanayakam led the satyagraha by lying down on the floor in front of the entrance to the Jaffna kachcheri and blocking entry to it. This soon became a mass movement of defiance to government authority and when on April 14 a postal service was inaugurated by the Federal Party, the government moved to declare a state of emergency. The armed forces were sent in, the satyagrahis were dispersed and the Federal Party members were arrested. The satyagraha had collapsed but its echoes and the images of a Sinhalese army in occupation of the ‘Tamil homeland’ began to reverberate and form the genesis of the militant movement which was to emerge later. Brigadier Richard Udugama, later to be Army Commander, was an important figure in the restoration of law and order in the North.” (pp. 106-108)

During Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Second tenure of office

“Unlike in the north, where the ethnic question was leading to the rise of militancy and an aggressive attitude to government and Sinhalese people, the situation was different in the east. It was more accommodative and in line with the almost philosophical attitude of the Batticaloa people to live and let live. There were possibly good functional reasons for this. The mix of communities did not allow for any especially dominant group-consciousness to emerge, the three communities – the Tamil, the Mislim and the Sinhalese – being more or less in equal numbers. Another could have been the long history of contact and commerce with the Sinhala majority areas and the availability of long-established transport links.

At least four roads linked this area with the Central Province and Uva – westwards from Kalkudah by the Manampitiya road; southeastwards from Chenkaladi by the Maha Oya road; further south by the Ampara Uhana Mahiyangana road and to the southwest from Pottuvil by the Moneragala road. This was different from the situation in the north where other than the A9 – running through the buffer zone of the Vanni – there was virtually no connection with the Sinhalese-speaking provinces.

Sirimavo’s policy of language standardization for university entrants, though not as drastic in its application in Batticaloa as to those seeking entrance in Jaffna, was yet reason enough for agitation. The feeling against the Sinhalese policemen, migrant fishermen, government officials and traders was rising and transcending what had always been the more structural divide between the Tamil northerners and easterners. This was quite apparent among the kachcheri staff themselves and I sometimes had to hold the balance between the cliques which had formed on this basis.

The other issue which evoked much critical comment at the officials club and other fora in those days were the changes effected by the new Republican Constitution of 1972. The concern was about the removal of Section 29(c) which the Tamils felt had been included in the Soulbury Constitution under which the country had been governed so far, to provide protection against legislation which could discriminate against the interests as a community.” (pp. 191-192)


In this collection of four frames, I have specifically omitted Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s relationship with the Indian Tamil ethnics in the island. I leave it for late this month, when the 11th death anniversary of S. Thondaman Sr., that falls on October 30, 1999. He was the best person to tell that angle.



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